Lost in thought, Navratilova loses Four-time champ too Open-minded

September 07, 1993|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- Martina Navratilova often thinks about her career in retrospect, and yesterday at the U.S. Open was no different. She did it before and after her fourth-round match against Helena Sukova, but, unfortunately for Navratilova, she spent most of her time on Stadium Court looking ahead.

To the quarterfinals.

To the prospect of retirement.

To an uncertain future.

Maybe even to the outcome of last night's football game between her beloved Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins.

"My mind was wandering all over the place," Navratilova said later.

So were her shots. Even though she didn't miss by much, even though one crucial break point against Navratilova in the opening game of the second set might have been called wrong, the women's third seed and former four-time champion succumbed to both her own mind games and to the 12th-seeded Sukova in a 7-5, 6-4 defeat.

It was only the fifth time in 30 career matches that she lost to Sukova, whose late mother, Vera, was Navratilova's junior coach back in Czechoslovakia. More significantly, it was the first time in the 107-year history of the Open that a American woman has not reached the quarterfinals.

It wasn't so much the idea of carrying the flag that proved a burden to Navratilova as it was the idea of winning one last Grand Slam title.

"I still wanted to be out there. I still want that opportunity to get out there and have one more shot at the title," said Navratilova, who won her most recent Grand Slam singles title -- her 18th -- at Wimbledon three years ago and her most recent Open six years ago. "That is what I wanted, have the chance and have the crowd behind me, and I just blow it. But she played great."

Asked when she thought she was in trouble, Navratilova, who failed to reach the semifinals of either Wimbledon or the U.S. Open for the first time since 1974, said: "At 3-all in the first set. I had blown break points in each game of that set. I wasn't focused at all. I should have been up 4-2 at worst, maybe 5-1. You can't give away sets to players that good."

After Sukova broke at 5-all and served out the set, Navratilova immediately fell behind 15-40 in her first service game of the second set. After getting it back to 30-40, Navratilova saw a deep backhand volley that appeared to fall into the court called out. She complained to the chair umpire, but as she said later, "You can't get a point like that back."

After Sukova broke her longtime rival at 4-all, memories of her first victory over Navratilova came back after she lost the first point on her next serve.

They were memories from her first victory over Navratilova. It came at the 1984 Australian Open, when Sukova broke what had been a 74-match winning streak. While Sukova had a couple of other notable victories over Navratilova -- ending her 69-match streak in 1987 and giving Navratilova her only loss indoors in 1988 -- it was the match in Melbourne that Sukova thought about.

"I was up 40-love, trying to serve out [the match]," recalled Sukova, now 28 and seeded 12th here. "All the serves I went to her forehand. I lost all those points, and the one I served to her backhand won me the match. So I thought, I'd better go for the backhand."

Said Navratilova: "I had a flashback, too, in the first set when she was serving for it. But when she served for the match at the Australian, she had like four match points before she won. This time she served for the set, I didn't get one ball back. That was a pretty meek effort."

Navratilova spoke in calm, rational tones, even making a joke or two at her own expense. She blamed herself for not playing enough big tournaments before Wimbledon, where she lost to Jana Novotna in the quarters, and the Open. And she talked about the future in vague terms.

"It makes me want to say, 'Forget it. I don't want it anymore,' or say, 'Next year is definitely my last year,' " said Navratilova, who will turn 37 next month. "It also wants me to quit right now. All of those things go through my head. Unfortunately, all of those things go through my head during the match. Which is a problem."

There was even a point in the match when her thoughts were so absurd -- and private, she didn't share them later -- that Navratilova stopped and laughed. (Was she thinking about whether the Cowboys could win without Emmitt Smith?)

"I said, 'How could you be thinking about that?' " she said later. "You should be thinking about what you need to be doing. It is just ridiculous. That is what gets harder when you're older. You have so many more things to distract you. It is much more difficult to focus. Sometimes I do that well, and sometimes I don't. In the past, if I don't focus, I was dominating so much I could still get away with it and win most of the matches. Now I can't do that."

These days, Navratilova doesn't just lose matches. She loses mind games, too.

Men's singles, fourth round

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